Toy Movies

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Toy Movies

As I write this, the Lego Movie has been #1 at the box office for the past three weeks. Box office sales are at $190 million on a $60 million investment.

Actual income for a studio is typically 1/2 of the box office sales, so the “profit” for the movie so far is $85 million, less the $60 million spent on animation, which equals $25 million profit. That’s a lot of money, when you add in a few other factors.

First: this is just the profit for the U.S. to date. The movie is being released in nearly 100 other territories, and many of the major territories haven’t had it open there yet.
Second, the profit will just build as the movie sells on DVD, through downloads, and through licenses on television.
Third, the goal of this movie isn’t to sell movies, it’s to sell merchandise such as t-shirts, pajamas, videogames, and of course more Legos.

While the movie itself may bring in a profit of, let’s say, $500 million dollars over the next year, the merchandise sold because of it will most likely be in the $4-6 billion range. That’s where the big money is.

Now, let me just say that I hate Legos of any kind. I didn’t play with them as a kid. As a teen, I had nephews who used to play with them and leave them out on the floor. So my fondest memories of Legos all revolve around stepping on the damn things in the dark, then checking myself for puncture wounds and wondering if I needed to get a tetanus shot. When I found one in this manner, I immediately would toss it into the garbage. As far as I’m concerned, they should be illegalized.

Seriously, how many people have been crippled by Legos? How many children have died by choking to death on them?

So when I saw the first advertisements for the Lego movie, I found myself bored and just plain annoyed. The 30-second commercials didn’t make any sense. What’s the story about? I wondered. Apparently there wasn’t any. You can’t see one in the 30-second spots, the one-minute spot, or even the three-minute trailer.

That saddened me. You see, there is a new trend in Hollywood.

Back in the 1940s through perhaps the 1980s, in Hollywood it was thought that “star power” sold films. In other words, if you wanted to make money, you had John Wayne play the lead.

In the 1990s, people who made big films decided that it was the “wow factor.” If you really wanted to make a lot of money, you just needed better special effects. But as special effects became cheaper, by 2005 producers began to wonder, what else is there?

The answer was “resonance.” (See my book Drawing on the Power of Resonance in Writing.) In other words, a story that resonated, one that reminded the viewer of things that he’d loved in the past, could draw huge audiences.) So we began to see a plethora of big movies based upon Disney rides, like Pirates of the Caribbean, or upon comic book heroes like Wolverine, or upon old cartoons, like Scooby Doo.
But not all products that resonate have human characters, or stories, involved.

The toys that we play with as children also give us a lot of fond memories, and stories about toys have been around for ages. One of the early big hits, of course, was Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Suite.” More recently, as animation techniques have improved, we’ve had blockbuster movies like Toy Story, GI Joe, Cars, and now Legos.

You can expect to see a lot more of these movies in the near future. Recently, Warner Brothers has announced that they are going to bring to life the inane timewaster “Minecraft.” It was one of the very first early computer games, and probably my least favorite. I’d much rather see the “Pong” movie, or maybe “Asteroids.”

To older folks like me, the idea of making up stories about nonhuman characters seems . . . somehow lame. I don’t find myself bonding to plastic characters very easily.

But that’s where adults and children different. Adults tend to demand that their protagonists be “real people,” characters who are recognizable and very similar to them in both age and sex. Children don’t.

As Scott McCloud explains in his book “Understanding Comics, the Invisible Art,” children are much more easily engaged by iconic characters, ones that bear little resemblance to a person. In other words, a character with a round head and two eyes becomes a perfect vehicle for storytelling. He explains why Charlie Brown became the most popular comic ever, why sock puppets work for children, and why children actually find old people to be . . . creepy and frightening. (The wrinkles on an old-person’s face actually confuse a child, making the old person seem less human. Thus, four-year-olds who looked at a picture of an old woman smiling actually reported fearing that she appeared dangerous, and that she would eat them.)

What does all of this mean for storytellers? Quite simply, Hollywood is exploring the depths of using resonance and iconic characterization in order to create blockbuster movies. They’re finding that such films actually make more money than a tale based upon realistic characters.

Consider the billions that will be made from Lego, and then compare that to the tens of millions that will be made from a movie like Captain Phillips, and you can see which way the wind blows.

Recently a friend of mine was pitching a movie in Hollywood. He told an exec that he had a script with a great story. The exec said glumly, “Who the hell needs a great story? All we really need is a great toy. . . .”

Well, I’m not so sure.

Even when a movie is based upon a toy, even when it has an ostensibly nonhuman protagonist, the film needs a great underlying story before it will perform well. It still needs to have a protagonist that we care about, a conflict that matters, and a conclusion that leaves the audience in tears.

If it doesn’t, I’ll forget about the movie completely and go console myself with some Legos.

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